First Members in New Communities

Lima, Peru: BBC World mentioned this morning that there was record snow in the United States and that more planes had been delayed than at any time since 9/11, but in Lima it was muy caliente under the equatorial sun as we walked through the two communities where ACORN Peru is organizing its first two groups. I have said it before and with any luck, I’ll say it again, but there is nothing quite as exciting as the first days of building new organizations and to be doing so in Lima adds another layer of thrill to the entire project.

ACORN had opened an office in Lima a year ago largely to support and service work we were doing with two partnerships: FENTAP, the water workers union and its fight against water privatization in cities and districts across Peru, and the Comedores, who run a massive food kitchen operation in Lima and Callao. Nonetheless, the longer we worked in these partnerships and became familiar with the communities and their issues, the more it was hard for us to ignore the often pointed comments our companeros and companeras made about the need to have something like ACORN — a democratic, membership organization of lower income families — organizing in Lima. In 2005, we determined to try to add that to the outline of our work in Peru. We hired three (3) promising organizers, one an RN, one a community health worker, and one a union official as the first staff to train in community organizing, as well as Isabel Diaz, our senior staff person with ACORN Peru, who had been maintaining our partnerships. We also had a huge asset in Leyda Flores, a topnotch, dynamite organizer from Honduras via New Jersey ACORN in our award winning office in Newark, who thanks to some paperwork issues with Immigration needed to leave the US for six months, so was available to get the show on the road in Lima.

When I showed up in the ACORN office in Lima, we had hardly gotten past the traditional greetings when Leyda and everyone else was telling me that in the first two days “on the doors” we had signed up the first seven (7) members, so we were on our way in Lima! It was exciting talking to the new organizers about their first impressions of the communities and the issues they were hearing and campaigns that were quickly developing in their minds.

We were organizing in two very different communities.

One was a giant housing complex with 3500 units and undoubtedly even more families than that called Palomino. Low to moderate income housing with the standard story — an owner that had disappeared, a history as housing for telephone workers before a cutback by the company laying off many workers who converted their severance to this housing, and problems from a lack of title to the units to crime to maintenance to the pollution spewing from the plants across the street, including Nestle’s popular ice cream factory, Pepsi’s bottling plant, a milk plant and a pasta plant — all yummy targets for different reasons! With a blink of the eye and some squinting, this development could have been in scores of ACORN organizations in the US and Canada.

San Juan de Lurigancho though could only really be in Lima. Unpaved streets met squatter housing that rose to engulf the terraces on goat trails through the grey boulders and barren hillscapes and the green or blue outhouses and water cisterns perched among the houses. This had all been squatter housing until in 1993 under Fujimora the houses in the flats began getting titles to the ground. Population continued to explode. ACORN’s organizers guessed that we were probably dealing with a community with ten thousand (10,000) families now and a laundry list of issues. This was all dry, dusty work going door to door and within the first rows from the paved street it was easy for Leyda to point out the houses of the first members. This work would be different in lots of ways, and it was exciting to imagine a first meeting for San Juan de Lurigancho that could have 1000 people there as easily as 500. One could feel the pulse of possibility that merges an organization with a movement here.

ACORN Peru is going to be interesting to watch in coming weeks as it begins to grow in Lima! It was a gift for me this weekend!

The community runs up the hillside in San Juan de Lurigancho.
The white wrought iron marks the home of one of the first members of ACORN Peru.
The Palomino units run about 4 stories in a tightly packed maze around the development.
This is a view of Downtown Lima from my hotel room — Lima with 8 million people is a huge city but not known as a tourist destination.
A church in the middle of the Palomino complex announces its commitment to being a voice for liberation and is a likely ally and meeting place for our work in the community.
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